The Miner's Grandchild
Image by Andi Chrisman
In the evenings, I would sit by his side as he rummaged through the uneven country that was his desk.
My grandfather had been, for forty years of his life, a miner. He had also been a devout walker, a wonderful badminton player and a father to five children, all of whom had “plagued” him well into his sixties.
To a man used to constant activity, the inactivity his increased bulk condemned him to was anathema.
Sitting at his desk was my grandfather’s way of imposing on our evenings together a framing narrative, a narrative wherein he was using the polyglot on his desk as a marker of the accumulated experience with which he would dampen my overly optimistic view of the world. In this narrative, the rocks he’d picked up from hazardous mines all over India and Africa offered blunt life lessons.
But by the time I was eight, I knew my grandfather was no gloomy Homer, no admonitory Nestor. My grandfather was a poet who’d arrived at adulthood beside Siegfried Sassoon, a humorist whose kinship with his Penguin paperbacks of P.G. Wodehouse was fierce and more enduring than his love for the stern-eyed beauty who’d beaten mathematics into my terrified father.
Years later, when my grandfather’s spirit resided in that river after whom his wife was named and in whose coolly indifferent waters he’d bathed in his village youth; and my feet raced across the banks of a river continents away, one of his lessons stayed close to me.
When I was thirteen, I had retired from a fight with my mother and was so angry I could barely breathe. I was angry often then, over little things, obsessing over my sense of injury until my head was fit to explode into flames.
I went to my grandfather’s room and rummaged angrily through his desk. Busy with his cards, he ignored me till he finished his game of solitaire, one of the many occupations he’d grown into in the many impatient years of his retirement.
“Sit next to me,” he said finally, patting the chair next to his bed. I sat down and dried my eyes while he told me, in his pleasant monotone, of Fire.
In my grandfather’s eyes, Fire was a tree that stretched its slender arms out to the sky. The anger we saw in the frenzy of its fragile branches was really a desperate love, a love whose desperation didn’t come from a need to be loved, but from inchoate warmth at the center of its being. Contrary to what one might think, Fire had deep roots – it sprung from deep within the hearts of the men and women who saw in its fierce affirmation of its own life the fatally sweet music that drove them through life into the restful Valley of Death.
It took me years – and many moments of pain and heartbreak, too – to realize that what my grandfather was really saying was that I was Fire, in all of the being my extraordinary self-absorption had led me to see as intensely problematic.
You see, I’ve left the anger to which I was unhappily wedded for much of my young life. But I now know this anger itself was not just an abrasive tenderness, it was also an attempt to make myself understandable to all the people I loved, people who often saw in the disordered nature of my affection something inherently frightening.
Fire still, my flames are pale. They soothe, they do not singe. For years, I burned low, too scared of myself, too scared of the world that seemed so hard and wintry. Recent years – and perhaps that true understanding of oneself that running affords – has taught me I’m sufficiently elastic to withstand anything.
As a child, I felt rootless, disconnected from the ones I loved. I was convinced no one could love me. But fire only grows lovely when it learns to love itself. I’ve since learnt I’ve always had roots, that I am securely lodged in the hearts of those who loved me when I was still little more than a deeply cherished dream, still little less than an incomplete verse. I’ve acquired new roots since, roots as gentle and loving as the strength with which they tether me to the ground.
And if I am Fire, who are you, my lovely, lovely child who obstinately refuses to close her eyes until she has drained every bit of Faery away from me? I think you are Dawn. And that those who love you will always wake to your smile.